Tackling student mental health challenges together

The first-ever nursing student mental health day started a new conversation about well-being
Illustration of abstract, rainbow coloured human shapes talking. Picture: iStock

The first-ever nursing student mental health day started a new conversation about well-being

Picture: iStock

Earlier this year, nursing students from around the globe came together on social media to mark the first annual Student Nurse Mental Health Day.

This initiative reflects growing concerns about the well-being of nursing students, which many believe has been overlooked for too long. We were joined by academic and clinical nursing staff with a shared vision for improving mental health among students. 

Student experiences of bullying and financial pressure

We know that nursing students struggle financially, with many working above the European Union working time directive of 48 hours a week just to survive or feed their families. We also know that students are routinely given their rotas at the last minute, often on the first day of placement, which can cost them childcare placements and stable employment.

Students are told to speak up about bullying. But when the online community @WeStudentNurses ran a Twitter poll in June asking about students’ experiences of bullying and the support they have received, almost two thirds of the 70 people who responded said when they did speak up they were not adequately supported by their universities.

The discrepancies between the theoretical experiences of being a nursing student and the acknowledged realities are often where mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression, flourish.

A group of us in the @WeStudentNurse community put our heads together to see what we could do to raise awareness and promote discussion about student mental health. We decided to nominate a day each year when students could discuss the challenges they face out loud, starting with 6 May 2019.

The power of peer support

The scale of the challenges was laid bare on social media, as Twitter was flooded with students’ stories and experiences. In one poll, a staggering 94% of the 334 students who responded said they had experienced anxiety and depression at some time during their nursing degree.

‘In coming together to share stories, people felt less isolated and embarrassed’

As more people shared their experiences, the power of peer support and talking about struggles became clear. Some were inspired to be honest and seek help, while others took comfort in knowing they weren’t alone.

Many who took a moment to release some stress and talk about what they were finding hard also told us what an immediate difference this had made to their stress levels. Importantly, in coming together to share stories, people felt less isolated and embarrassed.

Reaching out for support

People also took the opportunity to reach out to their universities for help, something students can find particularly difficult.

Nursing students often find themselves in a bind; having adjusted to being continually assessed, we fall prey to our own expectations that we must always project competence. We wrongly assume this means we must never be seen to struggle.

An annual awareness day ensures the conversation about student well-being continues and that stigma is reduced. But this is only the foundation of the real change we need to see if we are to address the causes of this stress and anxiety.

‘Ultimately, the goal is for parity of respect between nursing staff and students; the same advance notice of rotas, reasonable shift flexibility’

Since this first Student Nurse Mental Health Day, I have been working alongside the @WeStudentNurse team to develop plans for a student nurse well-being charter.

We aim to consult with students on what matters to them before transforming those needs into a series of rights. Universities and clinical areas pledging their support will be expected to demonstrate commitment to these rights to achieve accreditation.

Ultimately, the goal is for parity of respect between nursing staff and students: we require the same advance notice of rotas as regular staff; we expect reasonable shift flexibility so we can work and/or raise a family; and we need to be transferred to new clinical areas if we whistle blow.

These are small expectations, but they carry significant implications for well-being.

Making progress every year

As I come to the end of my time as a nursing student, I can see that progress of this kind isn’t always quick or linear. It is going to take time and there will be setbacks before parity of respect is achieved, but each new cohort has a part to play in designing the future and driving progress.

Perhaps the most radical thing most of us can do as nursing students is to keep talking about what we are finding hard. Every story shared is not only helpful to the individual and those who hear it and know they are not alone, it is also critical to driving progress.

We hope that this year has set a standard and that in each subsequent year Student Nurse Mental Health Day can grow, with events held in universities and an ever-widening presence. But my greatest hope for the future of this initiative, and for each new cohort, is that all students find a place and time to speak their truth.

Leanne Patrick is a final-year mental health nursing student at the University of Stirling and chair of the Scottish Health Students Council